“I made a special effort to put zits on Trump’s bum,” says animator Steve Angel. “It’s those kinds of details that make art transcendent.”
Angel is the co-owner of Head Gear Animation, a small Toronto-based studio that produces jaunty animated shorts that are inserted into episodes of The Good Fight, an audaciously topical legal-political drama now in its third season on CBS’s All Access subscription streaming service (and on the W Network in Canada). One of the song-based cartoon spots (reminiscent of Schoolhouse Rock!, which educated the Saturday-morning Scooby-Doo set on ABC from 1973 to 1996) involves a bare-bottomed Donald Trump.
Because the left-leaning series is web-based, CBS has encouraged The Good Fight’s creators, Robert and Michelle King (also the writer team behind The Good Wife), to be provocative with its content. Likewise, the Kings have encouraged Angel and Head Gear (along with American musician Jonathan Coulton, who writes the satirical songs upon which the cartoons are based) to push the envelope, as well.
“They said go for it," says Angel, speaking in a boardroom at Head Gear’s downtown office space. “I’ve done that every time, and every time they’ve said, ‘Wow, that’s really great.’ ”
Every time, that is, until recently. On the episode titled The One Where Kurt Saves Diane, instead of an 80-second hummable tune and cartoon interlude, viewers were instead presented with a message that read “CBS has censored this content.” Given that episode’s storyline involved free speech and a fictional search engine, viewers were left to consider the possibility that the missing cartoon was a meta joke.
It wasn’t. CBS’s self-censorship was real. The irony that a series made purposely to be edgy was being stifled for being just that wasn’t lost on Angel or co-showrunner Robert King.
“I was surprised at the decision,” Angel says. “The show that is otherwise very opinionated and controversial was being formally censored by its broadcaster.”
Adds King: “There’s hypocrisy at the core of this decision. And hypocrisy on [the show’s] side, that we didn’t have the strength to stand up to CBS.”
As to why a censorship notification popped up on the screen, as opposed to simply skipping the cartoon altogether, that was done at King’s request. “It’s a bit of a tombstone for what was a really cool and excellent cartoon and song,” he told The Globe and Mail.
Neither Angel nor King is at liberty to speak about the content of the pulled spot. But that the episode at least partly dealt with the Chinese government’s stifling of dissent, CBS’s censorship only adds further irony to the fire.
Despite the controversy, Angel’s relationship with CBS and The Good Fight remains strong. The show has been renewed for a fourth season, with both Coulton and Head Gear expected to continue producing the animated spots for the episodes.
Founded by Angel and Julian Grey in 1997, Head Gear specializes in providing animation for advertising campaigns. But in 2017, the studio provided a vintage-style animation sequence for the Tom Cruise-starring film American Made.
The spots for The Good Fight are somehow between explanatory and digressive within each episode. Coulton writes a lively satirical song to make clear a legal or political concept brought up in the plot. The song is then sent to Head Gear and Angel, who, with little or no direction from the showrunners or songwriter Coulton, produce the animated bit.
“Head Gear is very good at enhancing the jokes I put in the lyrics, but they really excel at finding the jokes I didn’t even think of,” Coulton says. “It’s like my songs get to put on a superhero suit and fly around.”
Trained at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Angel says the TV gig has been “invigorating.” Where advertising clients tend to whittle away at his more whimsical impulses, The Good Fight creators encourage them.
About the offending cartoon, Angel admits it was “pretty crazy,” but that the show has been nothing but supportive. “This whole censorship thing, I believe, reflects that," he says. “They could have simply let the spot die quietly on the cutting room floor.”
Asked if the controversy will cause him to curb his wilder instincts in the future, Angel dismisses the notion. “It’s the client’s job to create parameters where need be. It’s my role to create something engaging and different and challenging. I’ll continue to do that."